Nasrallah’s threat of Iran-backed Shia militias
Beirut- Since the election of Donald Trump as US president and his vow to roll back Iran’s influence across the Middle East, tensions have soared between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Both sides have issued a flurry of threats and warnings towards each other as part of a mutual policy of deterrence. While the rhetoric at times has been alarming and caused jitters in both Lebanon and Israel, the prospect of a no-holds-barred war and the massive level of destruction it would inflict on both countries has helped keep the peace since the last conflict in 2006 and continues to do so.
Recently, however, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah directed a new threat against Israel, one that hinted at turning a future conflict between Hezbollah and Israel into a regional conflagration.
During a speech marking the annual Quds Day event on the last Friday of Ramadan, Nasrallah said that a future war “could open the way for thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate — from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The choice of countries used to illustrate his warning was deliberate. Shia volunteers from all five countries are fighting or have fought in Syria under the aegis of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to uphold the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Additionally, the IRGC has influence over part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a coalition of mainly Shia militias in Iraq, formed to battle the Islamic State (ISIS). Several militias in the PMF, such as Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Abu Fadhl al-Abbas, subscribe to the velayat-e faqih, or the rule of the jurisprudent, the system of Islamic governance followed by Iran, and view Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their supreme authority.
This Iran-backed Shia “internationale” has granted Iran considerable influence across Iraq and Syria, helping shape the course of the conflicts in a manner that Tehran hopes will ultimately benefit the Islamic Republic’s strategic reach across the Middle East. Iran is close to securing a long-cherished land bridge connecting Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria. Such a bridge (or bridges as there are more than one viable route) would allow Iran to more easily deploy greater numbers of fighters and equipment to battlefields in Syria and possibly, one day, the Golan Heights on Israel’s north-eastern border, than by the traditional air route.
The capabilities of these various Shia militias vary considerably. Hezbollah is the most powerful non-state military actor in the world and its well-trained and motivated fighters have spearheaded numerous offensives in Syria. In Iraq and Yemen, Hezbollah cadres help train and organise militants and participate in operational planning.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Shia Hazara volunteers from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many of the Afghan recruits are illegal immigrants in Iran who have been offered salaries and citizenship in return for service in Liwa Fatemiyoun, the Afghan military unit. Similarly, Pakistani Shias have been recruited into Liwa Zainabiyoun. There were reports of Houthi militants from Yemen serving in Syria as early as 2013 but it is unclear whether they are still there given the Saudi-led coalition’s presence in Yemen since its intervention in 2015.
If the trajectory of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq continues along its current path with the defeat of the ISIS caliphate and the survival of the Assad regime, Iran could have at its disposal a broad multinational fighting force swearing allegiance to Khamenei and deployable to other theatres of interest to Tehran.
Some commanders within this Shia coalition have hinted at roles after the Syria war and the anti- ISIS campaign, including defeating Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“God willing, we will liberate the house of God and destroy the Saudi royal family before reaching [Jerusalem],” a commander with the Liwa Zainabiyoun told the conservative Iranian magazine Panjereh in July 2016.
Earlier this year, Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iran-backed Iraqi group in the PMF, announced it was forming the “Golan Liberation Front” and would carry out, with Damascus’s blessing, a resistance campaign to liberate the strategic volcanic plateau occupied by Israel since 1967.
How would this Shia coalition operate in the context of a future war between Hezbollah and Israel? Hezbollah has a very specific set of battle plans for Israel that leaves little room for other allies to operate inside Lebanon. Thousands of Shia militants swarming into Lebanon determined to have a crack at the Israeli army would only get in Hezbollah’s way. However, they could be used to open a second front in the Golan, launching rockets into northern Galilee and possibly attempting to infiltrate the Israeli side of the separation line.
The intervention of an Iran-backed Shia coalition in a future Israel-Hezbollah war would complicate Israel’s efforts to achieve a swift victory but it could create an unexpected diplomatic boon for the Jewish state by bringing it closer to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries that view Iran’s reach across the region and its emerging multinational Shia army with alarm and hostility. That would further cement the division in the Middle East as one of a Shia “resistance” block guided by Iran versus the Sunni Gulf and Israel.
Nawaf al-Moussawi, a Hezbollah MP, has noted that the United States and its allies have formed coalitions to defeat their enemies in the Middle East and that Iran and Hezbollah have the right to do the same.
“We are not alone anymore,” Moussawi said. “Should the Israelis begin the battle, we will clearly face it alongside all of our allies.”